The Danger of Creative Leadership

M y boss met me at the door with a smile and a creative idea: “Hey, can you show that clip from the news station? Everyone will love it!” He was referring to the unexpected news coverage we’d received the previous day on one of our ministries. His idea was both good and a surprise.

It was two minutes until the start of the gathering.

I said, “Sure,” and fired up the computer in the back of the room. As I searched for the news station website, I heard him grab the microphone and say, “Hey everyone, tonight we’re going to start with some great news coverage we just got.”

I looked up, and everyone in the room was staring back at me. I smiled and said, “Coming up!” Then I waited for the site to load the video. It slowly, awkwardly, sputtered to life on the screen. Eventually, the clip ran, but my enthusiasm meter expired. The awkward start to the clip had taken away some of the power of the clip, and made us – me – look unprofessional.

On one hand, my feelings didn’t matter. The clip ran and, in the end, the group celebrated the story. But the creative idea, initiated at the last minute, came with some collateral damage that night to my morale as the person in charge of communicating the story.

This simple anecdote potentially reveals a much deeper pattern. In many organizations, my experience plays on a loop. Here’s the cycle:

Creativity + lack of systems = half-baked production + low morale

After a while, consequences emerge. I’ve seen workplaces burn through creative and technical teams like tees in a preschooler’s ball game which simultaneously serve up hits and take lickings until they break.

You may think your creative ideas make the organization better. But there’s a danger to your creative leadership. If there’s a high turnover rate in your teams, that’s not because you can’t find good people. It’s because you need to be a better creative leader.

 

How do you lead with creativity while empowering your teams?

Consider these ideas for better creative leadership.

 

1) Up With People

Do you expect people to succeed, or fail?

I’m a positive manager, not a negative manager. I believe that no one gets into something with the intention to screw it up. People want to succeed. They want to do their job well.

If I lead with lots of creative ideas, and I don’t properly equip my teams to execute them, I am setting them up to fail – and I may not even know it. My ideas can’t outstrip the capacity of my team to produce them. (Creative ideas can push them to do great things, though.)

My job as a creative leader is to:

  • understand my team by knowing their gifts
  • position my team to use their gifts
  • give them freedom to add to my ideas
  • create adequate systems for my team to execute my ideas
If you simply say to a person, ‘here’s what I expect of you,’ and leave him the hell alone, they’ll probably give you a much better job than you could of dreamed of if you’d have written very tight specifications…Charles Cappleman
My job is to set them up for success, not failure. If I do this right, then they’ll do their job, and do it well. Charles Cappleman, the longtime VP of Operations for CBS Television City in Hollywood, was an early mentor. He gave me a great piece of leadership wisdom when I was a 24 year old intern.

 

2) Learn the Full Story

When mistakes happen, blowing up, seething, or making threats about negative consequences doesn’t help. That’s a poor response and bad leadership. Instead, here’s how to solve creative and technical personnel problems:

  • Take the time to find out what the full story of what happened
  • Dig down to discover their thinking and intentions.

If you do this well, you’ll usually discover it’s one of four things:

  • The person has been inadequately trained to do their job
  • They are operating within a poor workflow or resource system
  • They don’t have time to do their job well
  • There has been a lack of communication

Talk through their intent. Usually, a creative person’s decision is not made by accident or arbitrarily, but with a specific outcome in mind. Figure out what they were thinking.

 

3) Only give someone responsibility if you also give them the training, time, and resources to fulfill it

That’s what I mean by a “system.” As a leader I assume that it’s my duty to properly prepare my people with:

  • regular training and coaching
  • good systems in the form of task lists and resources
  • time to fulfill their responsibilities
  • (perhaps most importantly) a strong sense of vision for why we do what we do

To do this requires careful attention to detail.  It’s as least as important, if not more important, than the creative idea itself.

 

A bonus thought: how to deal with failure that comes anyway.

Occasionally, I have done all that I can do, emptying myself into a team member, and they still screw up.

In these cases I ask:

  • Do they understand their role and tasks?
  • Are they equipped to do their job well?
  • Are they declining in their performance?
  • Do they disagree with the vision?

 

If the answer to any combination of these is yes, I must consider removing them from the responsibility. They’re either not on board with the vision, or are lacking in talent or resources to do their job.

But if the answer to at least three of them is no, I cut the person some slack, double down on my job as a leader, and work for a better outcome.

 

How do you lead with creativity?

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).